A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
The crowded mayoral race in Maine’s largest city reaches a milestone Tuesday, with the five candidates attending their first debate hosted by the Bangor Daily News and CBS News 13.
Two problems are at the center of this election: the housing affordability crisis and homelessness. These policy areas are interrelated, but the Portland candidates are putting forward discrete sets of ideas for each of them and the ways they are manifesting themselves.
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The context: Portland is increasingly becoming a tourism center with a renowned food and drink scene. Yet the city is less populated than it was in the 1960s, and prices have something to do with it. Median rents rose to $2,800 as of earlier this year and single-family home values doubled since 2016 to $529,000 in August, Zillow data shows.
These prices make it hard for middle-income families to move in even if members work good jobs in Portland.
The city has had a range of responses to this, from rent control and a “Green New Deal” that came with new building and affordability standards as well as limits on short-term rentals. Major developments have still come in during this period, including a nearly finished Congress Street building that will be Maine’s tallest.
The pace of development is still a major political issue here, and interventions including rent control are generally thought to worsen long-run affordability and create bad spillover effects.
What they’re saying: Take the five candidates together, and they are trying to blend a mix of market-based solutions with government supports that have proven popular in the liberal bastion of Portland.
Councilors Mark Dion and Andrew Zarro as well as former Councilor Justin Costa are the plainest in saying that the city simply isn’t building enough housing. Their solutions differ slightly.
Zarro setts a overall target of 12,000 new units in 10 years, while advocating for stronger tenant protections and a robust racial equity effort. He, Costa and newcomer Dylan Pugh want to scrap or lower minimum parking requirements to gain more developable land. Dion says the city should stop interfering in the market and build low-income housing, putting him a tick to the political right of the other candidates.
The housing plans for Councilor Pious Ali are less fleshed out. The former candidate does not have a detailed issues website for his campaign, but he has advocated for a $50 million housing bond and strict enforcement of existing rules in the past. Pugh mostly focuses on expanding government interventions, including by increasing the share of units that must be “affordable.”
On homelessness, you see a range of solutions. Zarro wants 100 units of temporary housing as an antidote to the camps that have sprung up across the city. Dion, a former sheriff, has emphasized public safety and wants low-barrier recovery homes across the city. Pugh wants to end homelessness by expanding the “Housing First” model and emphasizing permanent housing over shelters.
What’s next: As you can see, there is some agreement here. We will probe these issues much more tonight. Remember, the new mayor does not have much power to enact their goals. They will have to build coalitions and sell their solutions to the council and city at large. It’s a hard job with big problems.